By: Sarah Scher

Over the past few months, Northern California has experienced several earthquakes strong enough to shake residents into scrambling to dust-off their old emergency kits. When one thinks of healthcare, they generally do not conjure up images of natural disasters. Yet there is a steady barrage of media headlines reminding us of the types of disasters or other emergencies that could strike our communities at any time. In fact, a report produced by the Federal Signal 2011 Public Safety Survey, revealed that half of Americans feel they are less safe today than they were prior to the disaster of September 11th, 2001. This data highlights the importance of recognizing emergency preparedness as a key aspect of general health and public safety.

The term, “emergency preparedness”, refers to the readiness of a political jurisdiction to react constructively to threats from the environment in a way that minimizes the negative consequences for health and safety. Public health emergencies take many forms, including natural disasters such as earthquakes and fires, pandemic outbreaks such as H1N1 or avian flu, bioterrorism such as anthrax, or mass casualties caused by explosions or blasts.

There are many ways communities and individuals can effectively prepare for public health disasters. On a countywide level there exist coalitions of county employees, hospitals, community clinics, and ambulatory care networks, which convene regularly to share information and conduct emergency drills. They develop countywide Emergency Operations Plans, which work to streamline patients during an emergency in order to maximize health resources within the community. When an emergency strikes, outpatient community clinics become vital healthcare providers as they are the primary health home for many patients. Planned coordination between these primary care health centers and hospitals allow for patients to be streamlined to appropriate care during the time of an emergency.

While it is important that health organizations collaborate to prepare for emergencies in a community, individuals also must be proactive in protecting themselves. Emergency kits, equipped with vital resources including food, water, emergency blankets, flashlights, vinyl gloves, and first aid supplies are a household necessity. Additionally, individuals should create a family emergency plan. Sample plans can be found at Families should be aware of the location of their closest health center and familiarize themselves with significant changes that occur in their community to alert the public of a natural disaster, health pandemic or terrorist attack.

Ongoing countywide emergency preparedness efforts provide a framework for which a community prepares for disasters. These efforts, in conjunction with families enacting key disaster preparedness guidelines in their own households, will equip a community with measures to react intelligently to the unexpected.

Sarah Scher is the Director of Community Affairs and Finance at Community Clinic Consortium, which is a partner of SCBH